Beyond the Package: Sustainability Know-How | Net Impact

Beyond the Package: Sustainability Know-How

How the Life Cycle Assessment process plays a role in creating sustainable packaging.

For many people, choosing packaging that can be recycled seems like the most sustainable option. But this isn’t necessarily true. Looking at the issue comprehensively gives us all the information we need to make informed decisions about the most sustainable packaging options.

In our recent workshop at the Net Impact Conference, we shared an example: a drink pouch made of flexible film versus an aluminium can. While the aluminium can is recyclable, it would have to be recycled at a 100% recycling rate just to match the (lower) environmental impact of the drink pouch. The pouch has a lower impact simply because it weighs less than half the weight of the aluminium can, saving GHG emissions from transport.

So how do we make decisions about sustainable packaging? We use ASSET, our proprietary Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool, a data-based methodology that considers the environmental impacts and benefits at each stage of the product life cycle. LCAs were introduced in the late 1960s and focused on issues such as energy efficiency, waste disposal, and the consumption of raw materials. Fast forward to today, and LCAs have evolved as an integral part of product development and decision making. Incorporating LCA data can drive significant environmental, competitive, and cost benefits.

As one of the world’s largest packaging companies, Amcor has the global scale and technical capability to drive sustainability improvements throughout the packaging value chain. Sustainability considerations are standard in our procurement and product development processes. We know that when packaging does its job well, valuable sustainability contributions such as product protection, consumer information, and safe and convenient handling are delivered.

In fact, the energy that goes into packaging often makes up less than 10% of the total energy that goes into producing, transporting, storing, and preparing many products. This highlights just how important good packaging is in order to preserve all the energy put into the production of food or other products.

Making a new bread bag

In one example of how we used LCA to guide our customers’ packaging decisions, we worked with a baking company, Hovis, in the UK to redesign the packaging for their Seed Sensations bread bag. The existing packaging for the bread was a plastic bag, made from polyethylene, derived from petrochemicals. We compared the life cycle impacts of the existing bag to a new bag made from a blend of polyethylene derived from sugar cane. Because both versions are technically recyclable and both materials will have the same end-of-life profile, we considered other impacts.

We compared the greenhouse gas emissions from the point of raw material extraction and processing, starting with the extraction and processing of crude oil compared to the production, harvesting, and processing of the sugar cane and ending with the disposal by landfill or incineration of the bags after the bread was consumed.

Production of the bread bag made from the renewable sugar cane plastic would generate four grams of greenhouse gases per bread bag, 75% less than the 19 grams generated by production of the existing petrochemical based bag. The difference is largely due to the extraction and processing of the raw materials used to produce the plastic film, along with the removal of atmospheric CO2 by the sugar cane as it grows. With a reduction of 15 grams of GHG emissions per bag, the impact is significant when the savings are scaled up, with the millions of bread bags used each year.

Insights such as these are considered in our product development work for our customers. From these assessments, we have learned we must consider all aspects of the packaging and the value chain where it’s used. It’s not only about being renewable, recyclable, or having recycled content. LCAs give us, and our customers, the information we need to make more intelligent packaging choices.

Responsible packaging also includes actions such as light-weighting packaging, increasing waste recovery, increasing use of recycled content, improving supply chain transparency, and improving logistical efficiency. You can read more about responsible packaging at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s website.

David Clark, Vice President Safety, Sustainability, Environment of Amcor Limited, helped design the Feeding People and Reducing Waste: Is Sustainable Packaging a Paradox? workshop at this year's Net Impact Conference. You can also watch video of several sessions online now.